Fr Francis M Browne SJ (1880 – 1960)
Fr Browne, a committed Pioneer and companion of our founder, Fr Cullen, gave frequent talks on the Association and contributed articles and photographs to this magazine in the 1950s. Widely regarded as one of the great photographers of the world, we present this obituary published at the time of his death in 1960.
The song has it that ‘old soldiers never die, they only fade away.’ Fr Frank Browne was an old soldier who never said die. He just faded away for a few months until the King, whom he served so long and so faithfully called him to the eternal colours on 7 July 1960 in the eighty-first year of his life.
Francis Mary Hegarty Browne was born in Cork on 3 January 1880. He claimed two Alma Maters – Belvedere and Castleknock – and never lost his affection for both. There must have been militarism in his blood, and the instinct for noble deeds and daring exploits. He went the Ignatian way, entering the noviceship at Tullabeg in 1897.
After three years philosophy in Chieri, Northern Italy, he spent several years teaching in Belvedere and Clongowes – mostly in Belvedere. During this period, he was the life and soul of Belvedere. The college was small in those days, number about 250 boys. There he endeared himself to many who, in later years, reached the top of their professions. It was there, too, that he became wedded to his camera. While doing full teaching he had cycling club, camera club and every kind of outdoor activity, except games.
At the conclusion of this long period of colleges came theology at Milltown Park and ordination in July 1915 at the hands of his uncle, Most Rev Robert Browne, Bishop of Cloyne. During his theologate he rarely missed opportunities of long treks over the mountains. It was all a preparation for his duties as military chaplain. World War I broke out in 1914 and, in 1916, Fr Browne became chaplain to the Irish Guards in France and Flanders. He was wounded several times, returning home to hospital with severe shrapnel injuries to his jaw. On his return again to the front, he served in the same Irish Division as Willie Doyle, and was close to Fr Doyle until the latter was killed in August 1917. From then onwards, until the war ended in 1918, Fr Browne was with the Irish Guards and received several distinctions. As well as frequently being mentioned in despatches he was awarded the Military Cross and the Belgian Croix de Guerre.
Tertianship was in Tullabeg, 1919-1920, and then Belvedere College for two years. A visitation of the Irish Province took place just then and two appointments made by the visitor, Fr W Power, USA, were Fr John Fahy as Provincial and Fr Browne as Superior of St Francis Xavier Church, Gardiner Street. Both were, in a sense, as a bolt from the blue. The advent of a young priest as Superior of Gardiner Street – especially one as dynamic as Fr Browne – was quite unusual. He was the youngest member of the community. The quiet hum of church work became a loud buzz during his six years as Superior. He was a great churchman. As well as a very eloquent preacher, he was devoted to the confessional. Moreover, he was a man of great taste and made many improvements in administration. However, he worked himself to a standstill and had to go on a long rest. The long rest was a trip to Australia. It provided Fr Frank with plenty of shots for his camera and matter for many illustrated lectures in which he was a specialist.
From 1928 until a few years before his death, Fr Browne was on the Mission Staff of the Irish Province. He was stationed in St Mary’s, Emo, from the time it opened in 1931. This life gave him ample scope for his unbounded energy. He loved his rest periods in Emo and his camera provided a helpful and lucrative relaxation. His photographs of places of historic interest in every part of Ireland were eagerly sought after by papers like the Irish Tatler and Sketch. In his scholastic days, he had made a reputation for himself as Editor of the Belvederian. Anyone who scans the volumes of that magazine will find some wonderful photographs. It was while there that he accepted the invitation to go on the first leg of the maiden voyage of the famous Titanic, later sunk by an iceberg in the Atlantic. Fr Frank’s photos of the inside of the luxury liner were about the only ones extant.
What were the outstanding qualities of Fr Frank Browne? He was a most priestly man. To see Fr Frank at the altar was most impressive. There was no sign of slovenliness, speed, distraction. From his ordination until his death, he put the Mass first. This had one rather amusing aspect. The pair of shoes in which he was ordained he preserved to the end, and only wore them at the altar. They were known to his colleagues as ‘The Melchisedeck Shoes’. This, in itself, shows his anxiety to preserve the fervour of his early priesthood. There was always a dignity about Fr Browne whenever he functioned in the church. A man of fine physique and carriage, he looked magnificent in priestly vestments. But there was no shadow of affectation, no over-exaggeration. It was simple, honest and devout.
This priestliness he carried into the pulpit. He was never cheap, witty, and frivolous. His preaching was always impressive; his words were well chosen, his examples apt. He had a very friendly and sympathetic approach to his congregation. His confessional was always crowded and never hurried. There was the kindly word for everyone. With this secular clergy, he was extremely popular; yet always reserved and dignified. It is the truth that he never forgot he was a priest and a Jesuit. He might at times be demanding but always in a pleasant way.
|The Father Browne Photographic Collection
During the time he was a Jesuit student in Dublin, Frank Browne’s uncle, the Bishop of Cloyne, Robert Browne, gifted him with a ticket for the first leg of the maiden voyage of the Titanic, from Southampton to Cherbourg and then on to Queenstown, now known as Cobh in Cork. While on board, Browne was offered the fare for the rest of the Titanic’s voyage to New York by an American millionaire. Requesting permission from his Jesuit superior, Brown received a cabled message at Queenstown that clearly and simply read, “GET OFF THAT SHIP - PROVINCIAL”. He duly obeyed.
On Friday, 11 April, the Titanic docked in Cork harbour and Browne disembarked. The Cork Examiner on 12 April described the ship’s arrival in its newspaper. ‘As one saw her steaming slowly, a majestic monster floating it seemed irresistibly, into the harbour, a strange sense of might and power pervaded the scene. She embodies the latest triumphs in mercantile engineering and although a sister ship of the Olympic is an improvement in many respects on the latter.’
Between Southampton and Cobh, Browne took many photographs, among them the last photograph of Captain Edward John Smith aboard the Titanic, and the only shot ever taken of the Marconi room. Also included are photographs of passengers and crew aboard the ill-fated four-funnelled vessel and perhaps, eerily, the anchor being raised from the water for the last time as the ship set sail. After the tragedy, Frank Browne’s photographs appeared on the front pages of newspapers the world over.
He was a brave man – brave in every sense of the word. As chaplain, he was rewarded for his courage under fire. The soldiers admired him and the officers revered him because of his calmness under fire. An Irish Guardsman, wrote of Fr Browne:
“We were in a church somewhere in Belgium and Fr Browne was in the pulpit. Shells began to fall all around. We began to look around and up at the roof already with many holes in it. Fr Browne thundered out: ‘What’s wrong? Why don’t you listen? Which are you more afraid of – God or the Germans?’”
In the home front, when he was in Belvedere College from 1920-1922, many a time when the crash of a bomb thrown at British lorries passing down North Frederick Street was heard, Fr Browne was down to the scene at once to minister to any injured. People scattered in all directions, but he remained firm. In October 1920, because he considered it his duty, he made a personal appeal to the military authorities on behalf of Kevin Barry.
He feared no man and feared no man’s views. He never gave in an inch on a matter of principle even to the point of being irascible. One can imagine the influence he excited on non-Catholics in the British Army. A high-ranking officer, later a Field Marshal and a Viscount, had the greatest veneration for Fr Browne and always wore a medal of Our Lady that Fr Frank gave him. (Viscount Alexander of Tunis, 1891-1969).
Fr Browne was a truly devout man. Those who witnessed his closing years remember his struggle to the chapel, his vigil in the garden each morning – winter and summer – as he recited his Rosary. For a man of his activity the cross of partial paralysis and deafness was a heavy one. His patience was sorely tried and so was that of others. Nevertheless, all had to admire his tenacity and determination. He fought on all the time, and died in 1960 as he had lived - a good soldier for Christ.